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Of all the movie studios that dotted the landscape of the Los Angeles area during the golden age of motion pictures (a time period lasting from the 1920s through 1950s), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) was by far the most illustrious. Back then, movie stars were not independent contractors; rather, they signed standard, seven-year contracts with the movie studios that produced the majority of American films. Of all the movie studios, MGM was the biggest and, some say, the best.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, whose trademark was Leo the Roaring Lion, boasted that its roster of contract players included "More Stars Than There Are in the Heavens." During the 1920s, such screen legends as Greta Garbo (1905–1990), John Barrymore (1882–1942), John Gilbert (1899–1936), Joan Crawford (1905–1977), and Lillian Gish (1893–1993; see entry under 1910s—Film and Theater in volume 1) signed with the studio. The 1930s brought to the forefront Clark Gable (1901–1960; see entry under 1930s—Film and Theater in volume 2), Jean Harlow (1911–1937), Myrna Loy (1905–1993), and Mickey Rooney (1920–). In the 1940s came Gene Kelly (1912–1996), Greer Garson (1904–1996), Lana Turner (1921–1995), Hedy Lamarr (1913–2000), and many others.

The studio was formed in 1924 by movie executive and theater chain owner Marcus Loew (1870–1927). The studio name came from the three previously existing companies that were linked together to become MGM: Metro Pictures Corp.; Louis B. Mayer Pictures, named for its founder, Louis B. Mayer (1885–1957); and Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, formerly owned by producer Samuel Goldwyn (1882–1974). The MGM studio was a division of Loew's, Inc., one of the largest theater chains in North America. The original powers behind the studio were Mayer, a Russian immigrant who was a fierce businessman, and Irving G. Thalberg (1899–1937), its brilliant young production chief. Thalberg was the motivating force behind many of the studio's most fabled productions, including Ben-Hur (1926), The Crowd (1928), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Romeo and Juliet (1936), and The Good Earth (1937). After Thalberg's death, MGM kept on producing and releasing top Hollywood films: Mrs. Miniver (1942), Woman of the Year (1942), National Velvet (1944), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), An American in Paris (1951), Singin' in the Rain (1952), Gigi (1958), and a remake of Ben-Hur (1959).

The demise of MGM actually began in the late 1940s. A court ruling made it a conflict of interest for the same company to produce films and then exhibit those films in its own theaters. That ruling, the rising cost of production, and the increasing popularity of television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) led to the declining power of MGM and the other major studios. In 1972, MGM was purchased by billionaire financier Kirk Kerkorian (1917–), who sold off its famous back lot (area used for shooting exterior scenes) and auctioned away most of the studio property. Today, the name MGM still may exist as a corporate entity, but its glory days are just a memory.

—Audrey Kupferberg

For More Information

Eames, John Douglas. The MGM Story. New York: Crown Publishers, 1976.

Hay, Peter. When the Lion Roars. Atlanta: Turner Publishing, 1991.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer. (accessed January 22, 2002).

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